Bernard J Schaffer is the bestselling author of Whitechapel: The Last Stand of Sherlock Holmes, Women & Other Monsters, a short story collection, and the newly released The Guns of Seneca 6.
He is also the editor of a short story anthology, Kindle All-Stars Present: Resistance Front, which is his brainchild. Along the way he’s managed to pull in prolific author Harlan Ellison, who is contributing a story. Similarly prolific author Alan Dean Foster is also providing a story.
Resistance Front will be rocking the Kindle Bestseller Charts before Christmas.
Bernard, welcome again. I suppose this constitutes ‘round two’ of our interviews. In my first interview with you, your new novel was mentioned as being in the works. Now it’s finished and out there. How do you feel?
BJS: It feels great to have the book out, but it’s also a bit like sending your child off to school for the first time. You know how smart the kid is, how much you love him, but now he’s going to have to make his own way. Once you release a book, it goes out into the world without you to protect it.
I’ve read 100 pages of Seneca 6 so far. I hope to be able to read the full novel soon. But I have to say that I loved what I read. It’s a real blend of Western adventure, with a SF twist. How did you conceive of the storyline? What made you want to blend classic Western characters and situations with technology and SF concepts? I obviously don’t want to give away too much about the plot itself and spoil it for readers.
BJS: Whitechapel was an intense book in terms of research and structure. It had to obey the timeline of the Ripper crimes and be true to world it existed in. Plus, it was a very bleak story and reflected the dark place I was in when I wrote it. Seneca 6 was me breaking free.
The one thing I wanted after reading that 100 page sample, was to know more about the universe of Seneca 6. In Star Trek we have the United Federation of Planets, and then we have Starfleet, and so on. How does the Seneca 6 universe work? How would you explain it to readers?
BJS: Seneca 6 is a mining settlement on a remote planet that operates under contract with a consortium of intergalactic traders. The settlement is essentially a boomtown, like the ones that popped up during the gold rushes of the US.
I think that by the time this novel hits #1 in the Kindle Store, which I know in my gut that it will, you’ll need to get a website devoted to the universe you’ve created. It reminds me a lot of Firefly and the good work Joss Whedon did with creating that universe. It’s not out-and-out SF like Star Trek or Star Wars, but a blend of genres.
BJS: If the book does hit Number One, you and I are going out for drinks. I’m buying.
Do you plan to revisit this universe at some point?
BJS: The Guns of Seneca 6 will ride again. Trust that. I miss the characters already and have been playing with what would happen to them since we left.
In much the same way that you have spin-off Star Trek novels, Star Wars novels and even Warhammer novels, would you be open to letting other writers fool about within the universe you’ve created? Or collaborate with other writers on stories set within it? A bit like an open-universe concept?
BJS: I think there is way too much going on in that universe for me to cover it all by myself. I’d love to see what other people can do with it at some point.
I know from the KAS project that Harlan Ellison has had a big influence on you. You’ve been in contact with him, haven’t you? What’s that like?
BJS: It is terrifying at first. I refused to call him initially because, really, who the hell am I to just call up Harlan Ellison? Ultimately, he called me, and we spoke several times after that. Harlan doesn’t waste time on pleasantries. You answer the phone and he just goes in. The guy speaks like he writes, which is to say, golden things fall out of his mouth, and I just wanted to listen. There is so much more to tell about my time with Harlan, but maybe I’ll save it for those beers we’re going to have.
Other than Ellison, what other writers have had a lasting effect on you? And in what way would you say they have influenced your work on Seneca 6?
BJS: Ron Hansen (Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Desperadoes) had the biggest influence on me for Guns of Seneca 6. I thank him in the book because I wouldn’t have written it without reading his work. Aside from him, I always take time to give credit to Stephen King. The last time I was here, I called him “My Musashi,” which wound up as a quote on my Wikipedia page. Steve deserves it. I return to On Writing whenever I finish a novel, just to page through it, and always find something that pertains to where I am at that point in time.
In the editing stage of my own story for the KAS project, I had first-hand experience of your editing technique. And it’s brutal! I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s actually refreshing to have someone say “Wait a minute, you mean…” at things you thought would pass. I want to take this opportunity really to say thank you for giving me such a brilliant education. I’m sure all of the KAS contributors would say the same thing, given the chance. We’ve all ended up with far better stories than we did when we first submitted them
BJS: I’ve been edited by the best, including Bill Thompson, Karen the Angry Hatchet, and (sort-of) Harlan Ellison. I’m not as seasoned as Bill, as smart as Karen, or as talented as Harlan, but I know my way around a good yarn. I have a lot to learn in terms of editing. On some of the stories, I was doing more rewriting than editing and that’s not the right way to go about it.
Whitechapel initially had an entire storyline that weaved throughout the book. Bill called me up after he finished reading it and said, “Get a pencil and write this down: Delete that character and her storyline completely.”
I was aghast. It was a brutal process, but ultimately it clarified the story. A good editor trims the fat and is brave enough to tell a friend when they suck.
When it comes to your own writing, do you find it difficult to be as objective about it when it comes to editing it?
BJS: I don’t edit my own work. I rewrite it, of course, but I let other people read it and provide editorial guidance. I’d been working with someone who was very precise and an adherent of Strunk and White, but ultimately that washed out my voice. Writers have to reach a point where they know the rules and sometimes break them anyway. However, having a “voice” is not an excuse to write silly, amateurish things, no matter what anyone says.
I’ve come to realise over the months what a dedicated guy you are. And you’re a quick worker. There’s really no messing about with you is there? In the space of a few months you’ve managed to pull together such a huge project in the Kindle All Stars. Have you always been like this?
BJS: I spent years trying to break into the corporate publishing and literary journal world to no avail. I was trying to conform to all of their rules and guidelines and insufferable pomposity and the only thing I had was my love of the craft. When Kindle came alone and the Rise of the Independent Author began, it freed me. I hit the ground running.
Readers could spend their money and time with any other author in the world, but they chose to spend it with me. I take my duty to rock you real, real serious.
When it comes to writing, do you apply that same self-driven determination to the task at hand? Do you ever falter?
BJS: I’m at my most focused writing. All I need is the time to do it. My father lives a very solitary lifestyle. He has a small house next to a horse farm in the middle of nowhere. There are huge bay windows all along the living room with deer running through the fields right outside of the house. He hates it. He hates being alone and does nothing but watch TV and go on the internet.
I would thrive in that environment. I’d write a book a day with all that peace and quiet. At least, I think I would.
How long did Seneca 6 take to write from conception to publishing? And what tips would you give other writers for achieving that kind of productivity?
BJS: A little over a year, but in that time span I was working on other things continuously as well. I rewrote Whitechapel, wrote or retooled the six short stories in Women and Other Monsters, wrote a short story for the Fiction Noir anthology and two short stories for the Kindle All-Stars Project. I stay busy.
You mentioned in an email the other day about women at your Mum’s workplace wanting to email you about Whitechapel. And you were saying about the importance of leaving reviews. Does it frustrate you when people don’t do that?
BJS: With Whitechapel, the people who love it LOVE it. The people who don’t are very angry about it. They go in expecting just another good old Arthur Conan Doyle rip-off and find themselves dragged through hell. One customer review actually was upset that I “made” Jack the Ripper into a psychopath.
What sort of effect do you think that has on your sales? Surely ideally you want as many 5 star reviews as possible.
BJS: Sales are solid for Whitechapel. I have no complaints. It is not a mainstream book, and certainly not a typical Holmes book, so for it to sometimes be the Number One Sherlock Holmes book on Kindle in the UK or US is an honor.
Does it really sting you when you get one person out of, say, ten leave a 1 star review? I suppose that one hand you’re getting people who love the book yet neglect to leave a review, and then on the other hand you’ve got people who just don’t get what the book is meant to be and leave a bad review.
BJS: I took a personal oath never to respond in public to a review, whether good or bad. I might complain on Twitter here and there, but that’s more of an immediate reaction. I use Twitter for stream-of-consciousness type dialogue. Sometimes it’s rap lyrics. Sometimes it’s me unloading about something that irritates me.
The only thing that really bothers me is when people leave a review without reading the book. There are a few for Whitechapel where they got forty pages in and ran screaming for the hills. I know why they’re upset, and I sympathize, but I don’t apologize for showing Jack the Ripper for who he was. If you are going to leave a review for a book, you should at least have the decency to read it.
I have a Kindle All Stars question for you…
BJS: Good. Enough about me, already.
Who came up with ‘El Presidente’? I used to chuckle at it. Now I’m actually calling you it which is just plain weird. Are you the Hugo Chavez of Indie Publishing?
BJS: My plan is working. I love a good nickname. I felt uncomfortable calling myself the creator or founder of the KAS. Too formal and self-aggrandizing. Telling people I’m the Editor implies that I’m editing the project for someone else and don’t have the ultimate responsibilities.
Here’s a quick behind-the-scenes peek at what went down during the Kindle All-Stars Project that nobody knows about. I’m going to tell you a little bit, without saying any names. The guilty parties know who they are.
In the very beginning of the project, I reached out to anyone I could find to see if they’d be interested in contributing. I didn’t think I’d get many responses. One of the people who initially responded is a successful Kindle fantasy author who I thought would be wonderful draw.
Let’s call him Matt.
Matt agreed to contribute a story that was already appearing somewhere else, but like I said, I still wasn’t sure if I’d get any interest so I gratefully accepted it. When I read Matt’s story, I realized it was the biggest piece of steaming garbage I’d ever seen. I told him it needed to be edited, and he laughed at me and said, “YOU are going to edit ME?” I sent him the edits anyway.
So the Kindle All-Stars begins to pick up steam and I connected with Harlan Ellison and Alan Dean Foster and the structure of the organization started to gel. Matt’s story was always in the back of my mind as a weak link, and I was harboring deep concerns about somebody like Harlan reading it and thinking I was a joke for accepting it. On top of that, Matt was hard to work with.
Luckily, Laurie told me that Matt was giving away his KAS-slated story for free on his Twitter and promoting it non-stop, while not saying a peep about the project.
It was right around that time that the El Presidente persona emerged.
Everyone working on the KAS project is brilliant, in my opinion. But your second-in-command is without doubt Laurie Laliberte. She seems to have done so much to support everyone, and to support you in your vision of what this anthology should be. And I think that perhaps she was calling you ‘El Presidente’ before you even thought of the name…
BJS: Laurie’s official role in the Kindle All-Stars is Consigliere. El Presidente is the Don, but she is the one you need to watch out for. And trust me…she calls me many colorful things. El Presidente is not one of them.
She is who I would trust to run it if I needed to step away.
This last question is inevitable for me, really. What’s next for you personally, all KAS-related projects aside? You’ve done a short story collection, you’ve done a thriller (and a historical thriller at that!) and now you’ve done a SF and a Western rolled into one. What’s next for Bernard J Schaffer?
BJS: Some very exciting things. I’m releasing an Edited Edition of Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes that will let readers experience the story without all of the graphic content. Now my mom can finally read it. After that, the Kindle All-Stars Presents: Resistance Front. Both of those projects will be out for the Holiday season.
I’m in the middle of working on “Superbia,” a book about a small-town suburban police department that is guaranteed to single-handedly ruin my police career. It’s fictional, of course. I’m banking that people it’s based on won’t complain about what they see because that would be the equivalent of admitting it’s how they really are.
And, because I can’t just work on one project at any given time, I’m also plotting out another book which is my first sequel. I’m not going to give anything away about it, but it might be called “The Magnificent Guns of Seneca 6.”
As for the Kindle All-Stars, I’ve already got the theme for the next project, which I am going to announce in the near future to give people a head start on preparing for it. They’ll need it. Clues are being posted on http://www.KindleAllStars.com under the News section.
Thanks for doing this interview. I’ll hopefully chat with you again for round three. I can’t wait for the anthology to come out. I know it’s going to kick some serious arse.
BJS: Tony, it’s always a pleasure. I love your site. Keep up the good work. “Redd” is a great contribution to Resistance Front and people are going to love it.